February 15, 2007
Lerg Stands Tall for MSU

By James Jahnke

Only once has Michigan State sophomore goalie Jeff Lerg really gotten upset about being shortchanged because of his height.

It was the summer of 2005, and the 5-foot-6 water bug was coming off a brilliant season with the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League. He was named the USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year. Not just Goalie of the Year. Player of the Year.

CCHA Notebook

Jeff Lerg ranks fourth in the CCHA in overall goals-against average (2.41) and save percentage (.915).

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The U.S. world junior team’s tryout camp was coming up, and Lerg was told ... nothing. USA Hockey, the organization that declared him the best junior player in the land, didn’t even invite him to try out for the national junior team.

“That made me the most mad,” Lerg said. “I felt they weren’t giving me enough credit. I thought I would be able to go to camp to try to prove myself, but they took three other goalies, and I didn’t even get invited.”

That moment symbolizes what Lerg has overcome to evolve into the elite college goalie that he is. In addition to being too short for NHL clubs to dream of drafting, Lerg has asthma so severe that he uses a breathing machine every day.

But the Livonia, Mich., native has made it work. As a freshman last season, Lerg finished third nationally in goal-against average at 1.96 and seventh in save percentage at .928 – and he led a second-half resurgence that landed MSU a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. This season, he is fourth in the CCHA in both GAA (2.41) and save percentage (.915) as the Spartans load up for another March run.

“I’ve always dealt with being told I’m too short,” he said. “When I was in midgets, they said I was too small to play at the junior level, then they said I was too small to play at the college level, so hopefully if I continue to do well, I can get to the pro level and prove myself there.

“I feel like I have to prove myself every night. There are goalies that seem to get more credit just because of their size. I remember watching guys I knew go into the draft, and I could believe these guys were getting drafted.”

Without having scouts drooling over him, Lerg says he takes pride in his statistics. He has started every game this season, and he knows his numbers would be even better if not for a fluky autumn run when pucks were whizzing past him off of other players’ skates, shin pads and the like.

“It was unbelievable,” Lerg said. “I was kind of rattled, I just couldn’t believe what was happening.”

But Lerg, like the Spartans, got it straightened out after a 7-7-1 start. As has been the norm under coach Rick Comley, the Spartans have kicked it up a notch since Christmas. Lerg has been stellar, including a 54-save performance in Saturday’s 3-3 tie with Michigan, and his cousin, junior forward Bryan Lerg, has been just as hot, hitting the 20-goal mark last weekend.

After a 2-1 loss at Ferris State on Tuesday night ended MSU’s nine-game unbeaten streak, a home-and-home against suddenly formidable Western Michigan looms this weekend.

“It’s funny, because at the beginning of the year, you might look at our schedule and think, ‘All right, we close with Ferris, Western and Bowling Green,’” Lerg said. “But now all three of those teams are playing the best hockey of their season, so we have to play well and get some wins to help us on the national scene.”


The Western front: From our standpoint, only two CCHA teams have exceeded preseason expectations with any notable degree. One is your soon-to-be conference champion, Notre Dame. The other isn’t as obvious: Western Michigan.

The Broncos, who were picked to finish in or near the basement of the league and haven’t played meaningful (to them, at least) February games in a few years, are in seventh place with two weekends to go. The road to clinching home ice isn’t easy – after this weekend’s home-and-home against MSU, they close at Lake Superior State – but they also have a four-point cushion over ninth-place Alaska and Northern Michigan, meaning a playoff series at rowdy Lawson Arena is looking likely.

A major reason for the Broncos’ busting out has been a pair of freshmen, goalie Riley Gill and forward Mark Letestu. Gill has solidified the crease with a 3.04 GAA and a .907 save percentage that make incumbent junior Daniel Bellissimo’s 4.01 and .866 look out of place in Kalamazoo, for a change. (To Bellissimo’s credit, he had a pretty good January.) WMU coach Jim Culhane wouldn’t tip his hand as to how he’s going to handle his goalies down the stretch, but logic dictates that Gill will be the guy until he falters.

Offensively, Letestu has a team-high 38 points (18g, 20a), which tie him for the national rookie scoring lead with St. Cloud State’s Andreas Nodl. An interesting side note about the 22-year-old Elk Point, Alberta, product: He’s actually almost a year older than outgoing senior and second-leading WMU scorer Paul Szczechura.

Overall, Culhane praises his team for the coach-speak staples of focusing on games one at a time, getting better each week in practice and battling hard all year long.

“Right now, we’re just refining the things we want to get better at,” he continued. “I’d like to see us get the puck to the net a little more. Our shooting percentage is one of the tops in the league, but I’d like to see more shots. And we’re always working on the execution of our special teams.”


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Michigan at Lake Superior State (Fri.); Michigan vs. Lake Superior State (Sun.)
The Wolverines need these wins to pad their NCAA tournament resume. The Lakers need them to lock up home ice in the first round of the league tournament (they’re in eighth place, the final home-ice slot). Friday’s game will be a “White Out” at Taffy Abel Arena. Sunday’s contest marks the end of LSSU’s 12-year agreement to play an annual regular-season game at Joe Louis Arena, signed when Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch contributed to the Norris Center renovation in Sault Ste. Marie.

While you’re there: It’s about five hours from the Soo to Motown, so you’d might as well break it up and swing by East Lansing for Saturday night’s Western Michigan at Michigan State contest.

Stick Salute

Just when it looked like Ferris State and Bowling Green could fold up the tents of their seasons, they pulled out huge victories. BG upset Michigan on Friday, and Ferris eked past Michigan State on Tuesday. It’s nice to see such resilience from those clubs. And as a reward, they get each other for a pair this weekend in Big Rapids.

Bench Minor

Too much love during Valentine’s week. We’ve got nothin’.

• Notre Dame has a magic number of three points over Michigan and one over Michigan State to claim the CCHA regular-season championship, meaning there’s a good chance the Irish will clinch it this weekend in Alaska. Looking at the rest of the playoff race, ND, U-M, MSU and Miami are locks for first-round playoff byes. Nebraska-Omaha, Ohio State, WMU and Lake Superior State are likely to host first-round series, so Northern Michigan, Alaska, Ferris State and Bowling Green would hit the road.

• Notre Dame is the No. 1 team in the INCH Power Rankings, but Michigan senior T.J. Hensick said in a CSTV.com chat this week that Minnesota is the best team the Wolverines have played this season.

• Injury report: Ohio State senior forward Domenic Maiani (8-12-20) tore an ACL on Friday and is out for the season. ... Lake Superior State forward Dan Eves (5-6-11) has a sprained ankle and is questionable for the Michigan series. With him out of the lineup last Saturday at Miami, the Lakers skated with just 17 players. ... Notre Dame forward Christian Hanson (5-2-7) is expected to return this weekend after missing more than a month with mononucleosis.

• Miami finishes off the CCHA’s nonconference schedule (until the national tournament) with a home-and-home set against red-hot Robert Morris this week. Thursday’s game was in Oxford (a 7-3 RedHawk win); Saturday’s is in Moon Township, Pa.

• If you’re wondering, like we were, why the RedHawks held their Senior Night last weekend instead of at Thursday’s game against RMU, it’s because it was easier to have players’ parents come in on a weekend instead of a weekday.

• Fun with numbers: Notre Dame’s 24 wins are the program’s second-most ever, trailing only the 27 amassed as a Division I independent in 1987-88. ... Nebraska-Omaha notched its school-record eighth tie of the season last weekend. ... Michigan coach Red Berenson is 40-40-4 against this weekend’s opponent, Lake Superior State. ... When Bowling Green’s Tomas Petruska scored the winning goal with 35 seconds remaining against Michigan on Friday, it marked the Wolverines’ first loss in the final minute of regulation since Michigan State’s Bryan Adams scored with 52 seconds left for a 5-4 win on Nov. 2, 1996.

• Nebraska-Omaha’s home series against Ohio State gets bumped to the Bullpen this weekend by the state high school wrestling tournament at the Qwest Center.

• Michigan freshman Chris Summers has three goals in two-and-a-half games as a forward. In 29-and-a-half prior games as a defenseman, he had none. We have a pretty good idea where he’ll be playing this weekend, but before you assume the switch is permanent, remember that the Coyotes drafted him in the first round as a blue-liner.

• Notre Dame has created a Web site for goalie David Brown’s Hobey Baker Award candidacy: http://und.cstv.com/sports/m hockey/spec rel/06 awards brown.html. Also, last week’s link to T.J. Hensick’s page didn’t work. Here it is again: www.mgoblue.com/hensick4hobey.

• Michigan great Wally Gacek (1946-49) was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Honor earlier this month. He scored 151 points in his career and led U-M to its first national championship in 1948.

A variety of sources were utilized in the compilation of this report. James Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@insidecollegehockey.com.